WILLIAMSON, W.Va. (AP) – A new sheriff who was cracking down on the drug trade in southern West Virginia’s coalfields was shot to death Wednesday in the spot where he usually parked his car for lunch, and State Police said the suspect was in a hospital with gunshot wounds inflicted by a deputy who chased him.
Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum died of his wounds, but State Police Capt. David Nelson didn’t say how many times he was shot or offer many other details as two dozen law enforcement officers gathered around him on the courthouse steps.
The suspect, 37-year-old Tennis Melvin Maynard, was being treated at a hospital in Huntington late Wednesday.
Nelson said Maynard was fleeing from a deputy and crashed his car into a bridge in nearby Delbarton. Maynard got out of the vehicle and pulled a gun on the deputy, who fired in self-defense, Nelson said. Authorities did not announce what charges Maynard might face.
Crum was elected last year and had just taken office in January, but he’d already helped indict dozens of suspected drug dealers through the county’s new Operation Zero Tolerance.
It’s unclear whether that crusade was related to his death, but residents and county officials suspect it.
County Commission President John Mark Hubbard said Crum’s team has targeted people “who spread the disease of addiction among our residents.”
“We were and we are proud of him and his service,” he said. “To say Eugene will be missed is a vast understatement.”
The county courthouse was evacuated and closed after the shooting. Streets into the city of about 3,200 were temporarily blocked off and officers held white sheets around the crime scene, Crum’s body further shielded by two vehicles.
Later, a bouquet of red roses with a red ribbon was fastened to a guardrail above the parking lot.
Though there is no indication of any connection, Crum’s killing comes on the heels of a Texas district attorney and his wife being shot to death in their home over the weekend, and just weeks after Colorado’s corrections director also was gunned down at his home.
Delegate Harry Keith White, who campaigned with Crum last year, said his friend was killed in the same place where he parked his car most days to eat lunch, near the site of a former pharmacy known for illegally distributing pills. He wanted to be certain the “pill mill” remained closed.
“I think anybody you ask would tell you he was a great guy, always with a positive attitude, always trying to help people,” White said. “It’s just a sad, sad day for Mingo County and the state of West Virginia.”
Operation Zero Tolerance was Crum’s way to make good on a campaign pledge, White said.
State, federal and local authorities have all tried to crack down on West Virginia’s drug problem, which centers on the illegal sale of prescription drugs in the southern counties. Mingo County is in the southwest corner of West Virginia, on the border with Kentucky.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says West Virginia has the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation. And in February, federal officials said they had prosecuted more than 200 pill dealers in the past two years.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin called Crum’s killing “shocking” and pledged the assistance of his office and whatever other federal agencies are needed.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, the Democrat whose district includes Mingo County, said the sheriff, who was married with two children, was new to his job but not the cause of justice.
“Every law-abiding citizen demands justice for this tragedy that has shaken our sense of decency, but not our resolve, to maintain law and order,” he said.
Kenneth Jude, 23, of Chatteroy, has known Crum all his life.
“They shouldn’t scare cops into not wanting to do their jobs,” he said.
“It’s people like that that give this place a bad name — somebody that would do something that stupid, to kill somebody that’s trying to make it a better place,” Jude said. “You wouldn’t think something like that would happen, especially in the middle of town.”
Jerry Cline stood near the site of the slaying hours later, recalling how Crum watched the traffic and the community but “never messed with nobody unless they were violating the law.”
Authorities have not said whether the shooting was related to Crum’s drug crackdown, but it was on Cline’s mind.
“He told them right before he got in as sheriff, ‘If you’re dealing drugs, I’m coming after you. I’m cleaning this town up,’” Cline said. “... He got out just to do one thing, and that’s the clean this town up. That’s all that man tried to do.”
Cline’s wife, Loretta, said the sheriff was a good friend to everyone, even those who barely knew him.
“Once you meet him one time, it’s like you’ve known him all your life,” she said. “Every time you’d see him, he was always the same. He always had a smile on his face. He was a very loving person.”
Crum had been a magistrate for 12 years and had previously served as police chief in Delbarton. He won the primarily handily and ran unopposed in the general election in the fall.
Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo and an assistant county prosecutor, called Crum “a true friend to the county.”
Williamson sits along the Tug Fork River in a part of the state long associated with violence.
Mingo and neighboring McDowell County are home to the legendary blood feud between the Hatfield family of West Virginia and the McCoy family of Kentucky, a conflict dating to the Civil War.
Crum’s county was dubbed “Bloody Mingo” during the early 20th century mine wars, when unionizing miners battled Baldwin-Felts security agents hired by the coal operators.
In May 1920, after evicting striking miners in Red Jacket, some of the Baldwin-Felts men tried to board a train in nearby Matewan but were confronted by the mayor and the chief of police, Sid Hatfield, a former miner, who had family ties to the Hatfields in the feud.
After a gun battle recreated in the 1987 John Sayles film “Matewan,” the mayor, two miners, a bystander and three agents lay dead. Hatfield became a hero but was gunned down on the courthouse steps a year later in Matewan.
In the slayings of the Texas district attorney and his wife, officials suspect a white supremacist prison gang. Those killings happened a couple of months after one of the county’s assistant district attorneys was killed near his courthouse office.
Colorado’s corrections director, Tom Clements, was killed March 19 when he answered the doorbell at his home outside Colorado Springs. Two days later, Evan Spencer Ebel, a white supremacist and former Colorado inmate suspected of shooting Clements, died in a shootout about 100 miles from Kaufman. Since the killings, worried authorities are talking about better protecting prosecutors and other law enforcers.
Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has described himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” and is a national hero to conservatives on immigration issues, said he was saddened by Crum’s slaying and that he is struggling to understand the recent murders of law enforcement officials.
Arpaio himself has been the target of numerous threats, prompting the need for a security detail.
“The brazenness of these acts is confounding. Inside one year, two of my deputies were shot, one killed and one nearly killed and now elected law enforcement officials across the nation seem to be being targeted,” he said.
The Officer Down Memorial Page says 136 police officers in West Virginia have died in the line of duty from deliberate gunfire.
Smith contributed from Morgantown. Associated Press writer Lawrence Messina contributed from Charleston.